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Bridges out

Lancaster County and the cities of Waverly and Hickman are considering a wheel tax to help fund county road and bridge improvements.

The residents of Waverly, Hickman and rural Lancaster County would join Lincoln drivers in paying an annual wheel tax to fund county road and bridge improvements under a newly unveiled proposal.

The wheel tax would apply to an estimated 44,000 vehicles and would be implemented through the creation of a seven-member joint public agency, comprised of representatives of the County Board and the two city governments, under the proposal

Most wheel tax rates would align with those already charged in Lincoln, including the $74 per automobile rate. 

Leaders in Waverly and Hickman — two of the state's fastest-growing cities — appear willing to contribute to improvements on county roads leading into their cities.

The proposals are in an early stage and could be up for public hearings as soon as September with a desired, but approval-dependent start, of Jan. 1, 2020.

First though, a draft of the wheel tax and creation of the new taxing authority is set for review next month by the Lancaster County Transportation Task Force, which had recommended the funding tool as a potential solution to the county's roadwork needs.

The new tax on its own would only cover about one-fifth of the $15 million needed annually to maintain county roads and bridges, according to the task force that studied it last year.

Although historically controversial, implementing a wheel tax would address a tax inequity between Lincoln and Lancaster County residents and help address the costs of county road improvements and maintenance, proponents said.

"It is an issue that has been talked about for 13 years, and it is something that we have to do," County Board Chair Roma Amundson said in an interview Thursday.

The effects of flooding in 2015 and 2019, along with years of delayed maintenance on county infrastructure, have put the County Engineer's Office, led by Pam Dingman, "behind the eight ball," Amundson said. 

She said the county should have joined Lincoln to enact a wheel tax in 2005 when it considered a JPA to secure land for an east beltway that has yet to come into fruition. 

The proposal then met with heavy opposition from county residents who believed they didn't need to pay for city street improvements.

The board's reluctance has cost the county millions in missed tax dollars that could have been put to work improving roads and bridges sorely in need of repair, she said.

As a member of the committee that studied and ultimately recommended this proposal, Amundson believes it levels the playing field for taxpayers. 

Currently, Lincoln residents pay a wheel tax to fund city street improvements, and those who own property in the city pay into the general fund, part of which funds county road improvements, she said. 

But while those living in Waverly, Hickman, and any villages in the county pay property taxes, they don't pay extra to drive on Lincoln roads, she said.

The 10 incorporated villages, like Hallam, Roca or Bennet, would have the option to join the JPA under the proposal, and she hopes they'd consider it.

Projections show the wheel tax could raise between $3.3 million and $3.8 million annually. 

With the wheel tax, the joint public agency could issue bonds backed by that revenue stream to pay for county road work. 

In Nebraska, counties cannot issue bonds to pay for road or bridge improvements, though Lancaster County officials backed a bill in the Legislature that would grant them that power. 

The County Board is already considering a property tax hike to fund its next budget, with the largest chunk of new funding to go toward county road and bridge work.

In this case, cities and villages in the county would have to approve the wheel tax.

Waverly Mayor Mike Werner recognizes the wheel tax proposal may be unpopular, but he points out that the most pressing infrastructure needs for his growing city of more than 3,300 are on corridors outside city limits.

The projected traffic growth for the 148th Street corridor between Amberly Road and Old Cheney Road scares him, with an engineer's study predicting average daily traffic volumes will nearly triple by 2040. 

"What people need to realize is I can’t use tax money for Waverly outside of our corporate limits," Werner said. "Yet at the rate we’re growing, our biggest road improvements needed are the roads leading to our city."

Hickman Mayor Doug Hanson joined Werner and both cities' administrators on the committee, along with Amundson, Dingman and Commissioner Rick Vest.

Though most of the wheel tax rates are the same, commercial farm trucks would see lower rates than their city counterparts.

That, to Amundson, is only fair considering these vehicles don't see the kind of use those in the city do.

"One farmer said, 'I only use these trucks during corn harvest,'” Amundson said.

Amundson and her husband, Randy, live in rural Walton and have three vehicles that would each be subject to this new tax. 

"We live where a bridge is closed, causing us to take alternate routes," she said. 

Addressing county roads ensures young drivers, professionals heading to work and farmers getting their goods to market all have safe ways to get around, she said.

From her constituents, she's heard a mix of reactions, including the "it's about time" sentiment and general opposition to raising taxes, Amundson said. 

But she believes this use tax would relieve pressure on property taxes since increasing the levy remains the primary way to pay for county roadwork.

Draftwork for this proposal was prepared by Lincoln attorney Kent Seacrest for an $11,000 fee approved by the County Board earlier this year.

If the proposal moves forward, Seacrest would be paid another $17,000 for the work to prepare it for public hearings and government action.

Werner said he doesn't know where members of the Waverly City Council, who began reviewing the idea earlier this week, stand.

Their input will help determine whether this draft proposal is worth pursuing, he said. 

"I hope that it is," he said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-2657 or rjohnson@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.

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